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Israel by Israelis, Part I: My Homeland, My Self
Spring 2010 cover
Participants' biographies are available here.
Israeli Reform Jews—some born in Israel, some via aliyah—share their stories about the agony and the ecstasy of living in this still young and struggling Jewish state

What does it mean to you to be a Jew living in the State of Israel?

Rich Kirschen: Here in Israel, being Jewish isn’t one window on your computer identity screen—it is the whole operating system.

Years ago, when I was a rabbinic student in Jeru­salem, a friend of mine, a sabra who was serving in the army, claimed to me that he was Jewish because he spoke Hebrew, served in the Jewish army, and lived in the Jewish land—and that was enough. I was always pointing out that he was completely ignoring the religious component of our identity. One day, as we sat in his kitchen, we saw a long line of ants crawling on the floor. I immediately said, “What is this, a stampede?” That word, stampede, was my first instinct, having grown up with cowboy movies. What did my friend, the anti-religious Israeli say? “Ma zeh, Yitzitat Mitzrayim?” “What is this, the Exodus of Egypt?” Even the most secular Israeli is far more connected to Jewish religious tradition than Americans often realize.

Levi Weiman-Kelman: It means feeling part of Jewish history, every day.

Hannah Yakin: When I was in Holland years ago, I saw a bearded talmudist exchange his skullcap for a baseball cap each time he went outdoors. That’s 60 years after the Holocaust. Five hundred years after the Spanish Inquisition, I saw a Jew in Barcelona nail his mezuzah to the inside frame of his front door instead of the outer frame where it belongs. So, what does it mean to be a Jew in Israel? It means not fearing to be who you are.

Dalya Levy: Despite the external threats, there is no place where I feel so completely safe and at home as a Jew as I do in Israel. I don’t have to apologize or hide or think twice about being Jewish, and that’s a luxury that doesn’t truly exist anywhere else on our planet.

Matthew Sperber: Israel is a place that takes its Jewishness for granted. While shopping in the supermarket at Chanukah time, it’s not unusual to hear someone use the loudspeaker to recite the blessing for lighting the menorah and then sing “Maoz Tzur.”

Paula Edelstein: Being a Jew living in Israel means that the radio announcer wishes you “Shabbat Shalom” and the television stations display pomegranates and “Shana Tova” as backdrops on Rosh Hashanah. It means my children studied the Bible in Hebrew starting in second grade. It means never having to feel uncomfortable explaining to an employer why I need to take off work for the Jewish holidays. It means that I get to personally contribute to an amazingly important enterprise—building the still young and struggling Jewish state.

Nancy Reich: Ironically, perhaps, I’ve found that living as a Jew in Israel requires more of a commitment to personal religious observance. Because the national “rhythm” of Israel—the calendar, language, etc.—are all Jewishly based, it is easy for secular Jews to assimilate. One truly has to ask oneself: Am I a Jew or an Israeli?

Rich Kirschen: Last winter we had a flood in our basement. The plumber examined the crack in the foundation wall, looked at me, and said, “Water is powerful…it’s like Torah.” Only in Jerusalem will you call a plumber and get a Torah lesson in your basement.

Tamara Schagas: Being a Jew living in the State of Israel is first and foremost a blessing. Many generations of our people could only dream of coming back to the land of Israel. Our sovereignty gives Israel the right and the responsibility to fully take action in the course of our destiny, and gives us the chance to fulfill our potential as a people.

Daniel Chinn: I am presently saying Kaddish for my father. Last week, I found myself in Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Mall for the day, and I needed to find a minyan. I walked up to the security guard and asked him for advice. He gave me directions to the closest minyan and the times it started. The minyan was filled with security guards, cleaners, partners in law firms, and shoppers. It reflected the society in which I lived; it was not outside of it. That, for me, is the essence of living as a Jew in Israel.

What does it mean to you to be a Reform Jew living in Israel?

Levi Weiman-Kelman: Being a Reform Jew in Israel is sometimes a struggle. I remember arriving at an army base to begin my month of reserve duty in the early ’90s. Later that week I was scheduled to officiate at the wedding of two members of my congregation, and I was anxious about getting that day off. Unfortunately, the officer in charge was embroiled in a nasty conflict with some reservists; he cancelled all leaves and refused even to speak to any reservist. I enlisted my congregation, family, friends, and, of course, the couple to be wed to use all the protectzia (clout) at their disposal, but still the officer wouldn’t budge.

When I finished guard duty the morning of the scheduled wedding, I went right to the officer’s office and waited at the door. Hours went by. The base commander went in and out a few times and couldn’t help but notice me. He asked what was up, I told him, and he took me into the officer’s office. By now the whole base had heard what was going on and everyone crammed round to see the standoff.

The officer was in his 20s, Orthodox, and of Iraqi Jewish descent. I saw a pile of faxes on his desk sent in by my supporters. He asked me to state my case. He listened and then said, “I don’t understand. What does it mean that you are a Reform rabbi?” I struggled to explain what Reform Judaism is to an army career man who had only a high school education. I emphasized egalitarianism and the fact that my sister was the first woman ordained in Israel. Some of the crowd started teasing him, saying he should attend my sister’s congregation. It was not going well. Finally he blurted out, “I don’t understand! What is the difference between you and my Orthodox rabbi?” I answered, “Your rabbi wouldn’t have to get permission from his commanding officer to officiate at your wedding!” The room burst into applause, and he stamped my pass to leave the base. I felt the rush of victory as he handed it to me. Then he said, “You’re just like that cult in Waco, Texas, right?”

Avraham Melamed: Being a Reform Jew in Israel means engaging in an ongoing struggle to persuade secular Israelis that there is more than one way to be Jewish; that Orthodoxy is but one among other legitimate alternatives; that identifying Judaism as Orthodoxy in Israel is mistaken and harmful; and that rejection of the Ortho­dox way should not mean a rejection of Judaism altogether.

David Forman: Even many of the non-religious Israelis who go to soccer games on Shabbat still observe all the major holidays and go to shul once in a while. I like explaining to them that they are really Reform Jews.

Stacey Blank: To be a Reform Jew in Israel is to feel discriminated against, an experience I was spared growing up in the U.S. The local municipality of Ramat HaSharon doesn’t list our congregation in the online directory of local synagogues. My congregation had to fight for 15 years, including appearing before the Supreme Court, to gain the right to build a synagogue, while Orthodox synagogues are built with public funds. Though 90% of our city’s residents are secular, the mayor dances with the Chabad community in the main square on Simchat Torah and has not accepted our invitations to visit. I am here in the Jewish homeland to fulfill a dream of our people, but achieving it as a Reform Jew requires overcoming many obstacles.

Paula Edelstein: When our older son married, our congregational rabbi was only able to officiate at the wedding ceremony because a good friend, who is an Orthodox rabbi, agreed to perform a joint ceremony. The state does not recognize the legitimacy of marriages performed by non-Orthodox rabbis. As civil marriages performed in other countries are recognized, 20% of Israeli couples marry outside of Israel. Hundreds of these couples later choose to have a Reform or Conservative wedding in Israel.

Evan Cohen: I received my training at a cantorial school in which 98% of the students were Orthodox men. Near the end of the school year, one of my fellow classmates asked if I’d found a job as a cantor and I responded that I’d be at the synagogue where I lead services every week. Impressed because in Israel there are only a handful of congregations (of all denominations) that have regular cantors, he asked where it was located. “But that’s a Reform congregation,” he whispered. I said, “So what?” “But you don’t look Reform!” he responded astoundingly. I then proceeded to remove my kipah, rubbed my hand on my head, and said, “Hey look, no horns!”

Matthew Sperber: At Kibbutz Yahel the struggle has been a creative one. For 32 years we’ve been trying to integrate Reform Jewish values into how we relate to the land and into our business decisions: how we interact with our employees, how we run our hotel business on Shabbat, and how we milk our cows. Early on, for example, we concluded that solving the problem of the Torah’s work prohibitions on Shabbat by employing non-Jews was not acceptable to us as a principle for religious observance in a modern Jewish state. We understood that once we had decided to operate a dairy business, to grow vegetables in the desert, and to run a small guest house—all businesses which would require us to work on Shabbat and holidays—the best we could do would be to define limitations on these labors. In our guest house, for example, we could limit the services we provided to guests on Shabbat, even though meals would still have to be served and broken air conditioners fixed. In our farm operations, we decided not to tithe our fields, but rather to tithe their profits, by funding social action projects that we initiated.

This has made my life in Israel as a Reform Jew exciting, meaningful, and special in a way that could not happen anywhere else.

Has Reform Judaism become more accepted among Israelis?

Rich Kirschen: Maybe it is me, but wherever I go these days in Israel, whenever I mention that I am a Reform rabbi, people say, “Kol ha kavod!” “Good for you!” When I gave a series of lectures on Reform Judaism to my army platoon, they loved it. I am optimistic about Reform Judaism taking root here, but it will take time. Remember, Reform Judaism had a late start in Israel. We weren’t here in 1948. It took us until the ’70s to start building institutions that eventually sowed the seeds of today’s Reform Israeli Movement.

David Forman: The Reform Movement’s inroads into Israeli society have been marginal at best—and I believe that we have erred greatly in trying to garner support among our Diaspora brothers and sisters by telling them how dreadful Israel is in respecting the rights of non-Orthodox Jews. We have basically turned off many North American Reform Jews to Israel.

The truth is, the cup is half full. Our Reform settlements—Kibbutz Yahel, Kibbutz Lotan, and Har Halutz (a free-enterprise community in Northern Israel)—would never have been founded or maintained had it not been for Israeli government subsidies. Our educational institutions receive government aid as well: The Ministry of Religion subsidizes our HUC-JIR seminary in Jerusalem as a yeshiva. The Ministry of Education disburses funding to the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and its sports center was partially built with moneys from the national lottery.

It’s time we start telling these positive stories instead of blaspheming Israel.

Levi Weiman-Kelman: One measure of Reform acceptance in Israel is its depiction in Israeli popular culture. In the Israeli sitcom Avodah Aravit (Arab Labor), the main character sends his kid to a Reform Movement nursery school. In the TV drama Serugim (meaning knitted kippot), about young Ortho­dox Israeli women, one character has a date that turns into a sleepover. Her date didn’t bring his tefillin, so she goes next door and asks her neighbor, a female Reform rabbi, to borrow a tefillin. We have become part of the religious and social landscape.

Miri Gold: While my daughter was in the army, I participated in a television show that was aired just before the Pesach seder. She received numerous calls from friends who didn’t know that her mother is a rabbi. She had never told them. She felt that it was too hard to explain the idea of a woman rabbi, since in her mind it was unheard of among her peers. Even when she filled out forms asking her mother’s profession, she wrote “teacher.” She is still self-conscious about her mother being “different.” I think this stems from the fact that Reform Judaism is still unknown to or unappreciated by a great part of Israeli society. Israeli haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) often accuse Reform Judaism of dividing the Jewish people; they’d prefer that Jews be non-observant than Reform. Other traditional Israelis consider Reform as “watered-down” Judaism and judge Reform Jews as lazy or wishy-washy because we choose our level of observance; they don’t understand that Reform is rooted in prophetic, ethical, and moral Judaism. As for non-observant Israelis, many will go to an Orthodox shul when they need a sanctuary for a bar mitzvah, wedding, or funeral. They have had little or no exposure to the Reform Movement and simply assume that the Orthodox hold the patent on how to be Jewish. Some of them find women leading services or putting on tefillin shocking or distasteful.

That said, once Israelis are exposed to a Reform bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, or wedding, a great many are pleasantly surprised to have had such a meaningful and enjoyable experience. Women who resent sitting in a balcony gallery or behind a wall or curtain are pleased to be counted as equals, and both women and men appreciate being able to sit together as a family. Often women are emotionally transformed by participating in the ritual. Only then do they realize that Reform Judaism is a legitimate, powerful alternative for people who would never choose an Orthodox lifestyle.

Matthew Sperber: The Reform Movement’s hope to create a framework in which secular Israelis would feel comfortable with a Jewish lifestyle has been achieved only partially. Yet, I remain an optimist. I believe that after we make peace with the Palestinians, Israelis will deepen their search for a clearer understanding of Jewish identity, and the Israeli Reform Movement will come into its own as it provides answers.

How is the experience of living as a Jew different in Israel than in your former country?

Dalya Levy: When I was seven, I was playing with a friend in her yard in Anniston, Alabama when she told me that I had killed Jesus. I responded that I hadn’t killed anyone and, anyway, I didn’t know anybody named Jesus.

Levi Weiman-Kelman: Once, when shopping at a supermarket in Madison, Wisconsin, the check-out clerk asked me why I was wearing a pot holder on my head.

Nancy Reich: Growing up, ours was the only Jewish family in an Irish Catholic neighborhood in New York. We celebrated the holidays with our relatives and congregation, and there was a gastronomic angle to our Judaism, but it wasn’t enough for me…for years I wanted to be like my friends who celebrated Christmas and Easter. I often went to church with my friend from next door, and we used to role play taking the blessed sacrament: We cut out circles of American cheese in lieu of the wafer, and “the priest” put the wafer on my tongue. It was the only time I could receive the sacrament, since obviously I couldn’t line up with all the Catholics in church. The fact that I made it through adolescence and chose to be Jewish was a major triumph.

Michael Livni: In 1962 I served as intern on the psychiatric ward at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn. Late one night I was summoned to see a 15-year-old African-American girl who was confused, sobbing, hysterical. In those days it was termed “adolescent situational state.” I sat with her for 15 minutes before she was capable of speaking. Her story was simple: She had been gang-raped for over an hour. I realized that this girl was perfectly normal. It was the society around her that was sick. That experience was pivotal in crystallizing two life decisions. First, psychiatry was not a route to my tikkun olam, repair of the world. Second, I needed to make a difference, to actively participate in the creation of a different type of society. I chose to live on a kibbutz in Israel in the belief that our Jewish heritage has the potential for creating a society which will reflect the words of the prophet Micah: “Do justice, love goodness, walk modestly with your God. Then will your name achieve wisdom…” (Micah 6: 8-9).

Has Israel realized this vision? Absolutely not! Does this fact absolve us from continuing the attempt? Absolutely not!

“It is not for you to finish the task, nor are you free to desist from it” (Pirke Avot 2:16).

Are there aspects of Jewish life in your former country you wish you had now in Israel, as well as aspects of Jewish life in Israel you wish your former country would emulate?

Rich Kirschen: I miss the Jewish New York scene, good deli, public speaking in English. Sometimes, after giving a speech in Hebrew, I wonder if I didn’t sound a little like Latka from Taxi.

If North American Jews could learn something from Israelis, it would be having a sense of peoplehood. I am concerned that, in the U.S. and Canada, Jews are turning Judaism into a religion and losing the idea that we are also in fact a nation.

David Forman: I do not miss very much about Jewish life in North America, except the greater tolerance of different Jewish lifestyles and the exciting creative experimentation in religious services and at our Union camps. Still, none of these can compare with the 24-hour-a-day Jewish lifestyle that defines life in Israel.

Levi Weiman-Kelman: I miss separation of religion and state, decent Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and going to the supermarket without getting into a heated political discussion.

Miri Gold: I miss the American system of democracy. In Israel, while serving as “mayor” of my kibbutz during elections for regional council head, I invited both the incumbent and the challenger to speak in our dining room. The other kibbutz “mayors” from our region, who supported the incumbent, berated me for having given the rival candidate a chance to speak. When I protested, “It’s a democracy,” they shot back, “Oh, that’s your American democracy!” Well, I’m proud of that American democracy. In the Israeli parliamentary system, Orthodox parties have disproportional clout because the party forming the coalition must bow to their partisan demands to remain in power.

Tamara Schagas: I’ve found that Diaspora Jews feel a deeper interconnection with Jews in the rest of the world than do Israelis: They visit other Jewish communities, express interest in their history, and learn about them. Israeli Jews, on the other hand, are aware that Jews live in other countries, but don’t necessarily feel as connected to them. Jewish identity in the Diaspora is built around religion; in Israel, it’s built around national identity. I wish we would learn from each other.

Michael Marmur: I miss cricket, crossword puzzles, and the more mature political culture of Britain, home of “the mother of Parliaments.” In Israel we sorely need a culture of free and informed discourse without the shouting and screaming.

What do you like most and/or least about living in Israel?

Rich Kirschen: I love the connection to Hebrew. Even the Coca Cola bottles say “Hag Sameach” (Happy Holiday) on Rosh Hashanah. I hate the fact that Israelis always think they’re right.

Hannah Yakin: I like when total strangers smile and say, “Shabbat Shalom” on the way to and from synagogue. Also, I appreciate the way people meddle in one another’s business because they feel responsible for each other’s well-being: the men and women in the street who advise me to cover my head against the sun, or tell me to pick up my grandson if he is crying in his stroller.

Going home after a routine eye examination, I was blinded by the bright Jerusalem sunlight. As I stood helpless on the sidewalk, a woman offered to help. I explained my problem and asked if she could take me to my bus stop. Not only did she lead me by the hand as if she were my nursemaid, she gave me her sunglasses, waited with me until my bus came, asked another woman to help me get off the bus at the right stop, and refused to take back her sunglasses when we parted.

Dalya Levy: I love that people care deeply about their country and want to make it the best place possible. When an Israeli does something noteworthy, the whole country stands a centimeter taller; when an Israeli does something awful, the whole country bears the shame and feels that it reflects badly on us all. We spend lots of time worrying about why, with all our brains, determination, and incredibly talented young people, we aren’t the number one country in everything—education, sports, culture, art, cuisine, etc. Striving to be the best gives us a vitality that I never found in the States.

Stacey Blank: Israel is a family-friendly country and a great place to raise kids. Children are welcome almost anywhere—at most restaurants you see people out with their kids, and summer street festivals are always a family affair, with free events like music concerts and puppet theater for kids. When I walk down the street with our two-year-old son, even macho Israeli guys smile at him.

What I like the least is the narrow-mindedness of many Israelis, who see the world as either black or white, especially when it comes to religion. Also, sometimes the endless, heated debates get tiresome. The practical American side of me just wants to get to the point.

Hanan Cidor: I love the Israeli style of arguing about everything, because it signifies how much we truly care about what is happening to friends, family, and country. Israelis feel strong solidarity with one another, and no one is ever a stranger here. We like to treat everyone as family, as if we know them personally, even if this is the first time we’ve ever met. Whatever might happen to me, I feel I’ll never really be alone in Israel.
What I like least is constantly having to explain, to the outside world and, more importantly, to myself, why I want to live in Israel and what it means to be an Israeli. I doubt that most Americans or Canadians wrestle with such questions.

Matthew Sperber: As a parent and grandparent, I like living in a little country because my children and grandchildren can never be very far away. Traveling from Israel’s most southern point to northern point only takes seven hours. Also, in a small country, one person, one family, and one community can make a real impact on society.

Evan Cohen: Roni, our “specialty vegetable guy” in the Machaneh Yehudah market, noticed that for two weeks in a row I was buying less than usual. He called me over and said, “Listen, if times are tough, you don’t have to be embarrassed. Get whatever you need; it’s on me. When things get better, which they will, you can pay me back.” When I explained to him that I was buying less because we’d been invited to friends’ homes for Shabbat two weeks straight, he smiled and said, “Welcome to Israel.”

What drives me crazy is the feeling of entitlement and lack of personal responsibility among many Israelis who see everything as the government’s responsibility, rather than their own. That explains why garbage fills our parks, there are many fatalities on our roads and highways, and other societal ills.

Miri Gold: I don’t like the Israeli bureaucracy. It’s not uncommon for me to stand in a line for a long time at a government office, only to discover I’m missing a critical form I didn’t know I needed.

Worse, though, is the treatment Reform converts receive at the hands of Israeli officials. One such convert, a Russian woman, was happily married to an Israeli Jew for seven years. When he died, the Interior Ministry tried to revoke her permanent status and deport her, along with her children from a previous marriage. The fact that she converted through the Reform Movement in Israel bore no weight. Our Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center took up her cause. The case is still in the courts, which keeps her from being deported. Happily, her daughter married an Israeli, so she has some protection, although the authorities check every year for four years to make sure they are really married.

I’m also dismayed by the xenophobia, prejudice, and ignorance displayed by some government leaders. Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, head of the Shas party, asserted that women wearing a tallit at the Western Wall should be burned in their tallit! Other officials have called for the imprisonment of women who pray and read Torah at the Wall as men do.

Then, because of the fear that foreign, non-Jewish workers and their children will dilute the Jewish State, in 2009 the Interior Ministry decided to deport the children of such workers, even though they were born in Israel, go to Israeli schools, speak Hebrew, and see Israel as their home. Many Israeli Jews are sensitive to this issue because they well remember being stateless refugees and don’t want to see anyone else treated this way. Public outcry has been loud enough to get the prime minister to postpone implementation of the decision, but it has not been rescinded.

I especially like how we Israelis acknowledge the sanctity of life on Memorial Day. Every Israeli knows someone who’s died or lost a loved one. When the two-minute siren goes off at 11:00 a.m., cars, buses, and trucks stop in the middle of the road. People get out of their cars to stand quietly at attention.

Many people will later visit military cemeteries. Our kibbutz cemetery has a military section where 19 Gezer members and nine soldiers are buried, all of whom lost their lives on June 10, 1948, during Israel’s War of Independence. I know some of the widows and children of those who died. Each gravestone tells a story: the person’s name, his/her parents’ first names, the country from which he/she made aliyah. Ours is a true “ingathering of the exiles”: Austria, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Poland, Romania, Syria, Tunisia, Yemen….

Michael Marmur: I love feeling so at home here. Even when I feel alienated, my alienation feels at home here. I also like the ease of life and the feeling of freedom. And there is a directness and informality here which suits me fine.


Rabbi Stacey Blank
, born in Cleveland in 1977, made aliyah in 2005. She now lives in Jerusalem and serves as rabbi of Congregation Darchei Noam in Ramat HaSharon, just outside of Tel Aviv.

Daniel Chinn, born in London in 1965, grew up in Alyth Gardens Reform Synagogue. At 15 he went to a Reform summer camp in Israel and was completely captivated. In 1988, a year after becoming the first full-time mazkir (head) of RSY-Netzer, the UK affiliate of the world Reform Zionist Youth Movement, he and his wife-to-be made aliyah. He has served as president of Congregation Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem and as chair of the Management Committee of Tali Beit Hinuch, a public high school affiliated with the Israel Reform Movement which offers a liberal Jewish, pluralistic education. Currently he is CEO of Seambiotic Ltd.

Hanan Cidor, born and raised in Jerusalem, is the Jewish Agency for Israel shaliach (emissary) to URJ and NFTY. His parents were drawn to the Reform Movement in Israel when it came time to register him for elementary school. Too traditional to enroll him in secular public school, but put off by the Orthodox religious school establishment, they discovered the Tali school system affiliated with the Reform Movement and eventually joined Congregation Kol HaNeshama. Hanan was in the first class of Mechina, the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s pre-army leadership training program; served as an army paramedic in Gaza during the disengagement period; and later commanded the army’s paramedics course.

Cantor Evan Cohen grew up in Monroe, New York and made aliyah in 1998. He received his cantorial certification from the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute—becoming the first and only Reform graduate of the school—and now serves as cantor and director of overseas relations and fundraising for Kehilat Har-El as well as an instructor for HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinic program.

Paula Edelstein, born in Duluth, Minnesota, made aliyah in 1972 with her husband and three-year-old son from Cincinnati, where they had been active in Temple Shalom. Formerly executive director of ARZENU, the International Federation of Reform and Progressive Religious Zionists, as well as chairperson of the IMPJ, she is currently chairperson of the Israel Religious Action Committee’s Steering Committee; a member of the HUC-JIR Board of Overseerers, Jerusalem campus; co-chair of the Jewish Agency Aliyah and Absorption Committee; and a member of Har El Congregation in Jerusalem.

Rabbi David Forman, born in Boston, moved to Israel at age 28, one month after ordination from HUC-Cincinnati in 1972. He is the former director of the Union’s NFTY office in Jerusalem; the founding chair of Rabbis for Human Rights, on whose behalf he accepted the Knesset prize for “Peace and Tolerance”; and former chair of Interns for Peace. Now a lecturer, author, and columnist for the Jerusalem Post, he is a member of Congregation Kol HaNeshema in Jerusalem.

Rabbi Miri Gold, born Marilyn Rae Gold in 1949 in Detroit, made aliyah in 1977 to Kibbutz Gezer. Ordained in 1999 (as the third woman Reform rabbi in Israel), she is now spiritual leader of Kehilat Birkat Shalom at Kibbutz Gezer (its synagogue became affiliated with the IMPJ in 1997), serves as a board member of Rabbis for Human Rights and MARAM (the Israeli Reform rabbinic association), and is currently Israel’s representative to the Women’s Rabbinic Network.

Rabbi Rich Kirschen, born in Woodmere, Long Island, made aliyah at age 41. In the States he served as a Hillel director at both Brown University and the University of Michigan. He now directs the Anita Saltz International Education Center, part of the World Union for Progressive Judaism in Jerusalem.

Dalya Levy became fascinated with Israel in the early 1950s at age three, when a teacher at Temple Beth El, Anniston, Alabama asked her class to bring their old toys and clothes to Sunday school for the needy children of Israel “who weren’t as lucky as we were.” She became Israel’s first private banker and was one of the country’s first business mentors. She also helped found the Reform Movement’s first kindergarten and the Tali Beit Vegan Reform grammar school; served on Har El Congregation’s finance committee; became the first lay chair of the IMPJ’s Keren B’Kavod social justice fund; and coordinated the IMPJ Ride4Reform. Now she is executive director of ARZENU, the umbrella organization for Reform and Progressive Zionists.

Dr. Michael Livni, born in Vienna in 1935, grew up in Vancouver, B.C. and received his M.D. from the University of British Columbia in 1959. In 1963 he made aliyah, working on a kibbutz in a variety of jobs, from turkey farmer and financial manager to educator. In the 1970s he served as shaliach to NFTY, helping to organize groups to settle on Kibbutz Yahel and Kibbutz Lotan, and in 1986 he moved to Lotan. He has written three books: Reform Zionist Perspective (1977), Reform Zionism: An Educator’s Perspective (1999), and The Reform Option: Another Zionism (2002). Currently, he is chairperson of “Tzell Hatamar,” Kibbutz Lotan’s nonprofit ecological society.

Rabbi Michael Marmur, born in London in 1963, was admitted in 1984 to the Hebrew Union College’s rabbinical program, and during his first year of studies in Jerusalem decided to “defect” to HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinic program. Formerly the congregational rabbi, teacher, and administrator at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa as well as dean of HUC-JIR’s Jerusalem school, he is now serving as the College-Institute’s vice president for Academic Affairs.

Professor Avraham Melamed, a sabra whose parents made aliyah from the Baltics in the early 1930s, is a professor of Jewish philosophy at the University of Haifa and chair of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism.

* Rabbi Dr. Edgar Nof was born in 1962 in Brooklyn, New York and raised in Argentina from the age of nine months. At age 20 he made aliyah. He served as director of HUC-JIR’s rabbinic program in Jerusalem from 1990 to 1997, and has been the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Hadash in Haifa since 2000.

Nancy Reich grew up in Larchmont, New York, where she and her family were active in Larchmont Temple. In 1980 she made aliyah and has helped to build Kibbutz Yahel in the Arava, where she currently works as secretary in the regional agricultural research and development facility.

Tamara Schagas (a.k.a. Tati) grew up in Buenos Aires, where her family was involved in Emanu-El, the only Reform congregation in Argentina. She made aliyah in 2003. Now she is a first-year student at HUC-JIR’s Israeli rabbinical program and national coordinator of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s Young Adult Forum.

Matthew Sperber, born and raised in New York, made aliyah in 1977, becoming a founding member of Kibbutz Yahel and, later, its treasurer and CEO. Formerly director of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism’s Youth Movement, he currently chairs the IMPJ’s National Board and serves as CEO of Kibbutz Kalya on the Dead Sea.

Rabbi Levi Weiman-Kelman, born in New York City in 1953, made aliyah in 1980. He is a founder of Rabbis for Human Rights and currently serves as rabbi of Kehillat Kol HaNeshama in Jerusalem, a Progressive (Reform) congregation he helped establish.

Hannah Yakin studied simultaneously at secretarial school and the art academy in Holland. She made aliyah in 1956. Her two novels, set in modern West Jerusalem, were published in Holland in 2004 and 2008. She and her husband live in Jerusalem in a house built by her husband’s grandfather, and take pride in their eight children and a growing number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’ve been members of Har-El Congregation since 1968.

* Participants whose comments don’t appear in this issue, but will appear in the 2nd (Summer 2010) and/or 3rd (Fall 2010) installments


  • 7.6 million Jews live in Israel
  • 48% define themselves as secular Jews, 32% as traditional Jews, and 20% as Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox
  • 49% of secular Jews and 17% of traditional Jews say they feel closest to the Reform Movement
  • 56% of secular Jews and 39% of traditional Jews say they’re willing to join Reform communal activities
  • 42% of secular Jews and 40% of traditional Jews say they would consider educating their children in a Reform preschool

    Source: Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism


  • Administers 45 preschool classes throughout Israel. These preschools—Jewish, pluralistic, egalitarian, and value-based—are open to all Israelis who wish to provide their children (ages 2–6) with a liberal, progressive Jewish education.
  • Runs (in cooperation with local congregations) 6 public schools (in Haifa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Modi’in, and Tzhala), all engaged in tolerant, pluralistic Jewish identity building
  • Operates a conversion school in Russian, English, and Spanish for 150–200 students yearly
  • Conducts a year-long Mechina pre-army leadership training program
  • Offers (along with a local center and college) a course which trains volunteers to officiate at Kabbalat Shabbat ceremonies in local kibbutzim
  • Develops Reform houses of learning. Its beit midrash in Israel’s Sha’ar Hanegev region, near the Israel-Gaza border, provided Jewish studies and holiday-related activities even when 60 rockets were landing in the area daily.


The very best way to stay connected to Reform Jews in Israel is by becoming a member of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), which:
  1. brings Israel into the minds, hearts, and lives of North American Reform Jews through increased awareness, education, and programming;
  2. empowers Reform Jews to promote Israel in their own communities and beyond;
  3. supports the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and the Israel Reform Action Center; and
  4. creates hands-on experiences in Israel through ARZA World Travel that lead to lifelong relationships
Annual membership is $25. For more information, go to or call 212-650-4280. In Canada, go to or call 416-630-0375.


Union for Reform Judaism.